Focusing its primary gaze on Michoacán, a Western Mexican state in the grip of the Templar Knights cartel, Cartel Land is a complex, harrowing documentary about drug gangs’ grip on Mexico (and the Mexican-American borderlands) that doubles as a portrait of the difficulties of grassroots revolutionary movements.
In Michoacán, in response to his neighbors being gunned down and beheaded—an atrocity he photographed with his camera as proof of his enemies’ barbarism—Dr. José Mireles sought to fight back against his community’s oppressors by creating the Autodefensas, a vigilante group that took up arms against the cartels. Liberating one occupied town after another another, the Autodefensas were a response to both the cartels and to the corrupt government with whom they were in league. Soon, a state-wide movement was afoot, with fed-up everyday citizens donning the Autodefensas’ uniform—a white t-shirt—and picking up machine guns to oppose an enemy that, as one woman horrifyingly recounts, has committed torture, murder, dismemberment and rape with narcotics-fueled glee.
Director Matthew Heineman’s film opens at night, alongside masked men cooking meth in the Mexican desert: an up-close-and-personal vantage point that he maintains throughout Cartel Land. Shot with an assured attention to dramatic compositions and edited with a swiftness that generates uneasy, suspenseful momentum, Heineman’s documentary has the electricity of an adrenalized war film. Its kinship with fictionalized genre cinema is furthered by the fact that the Autodefensas’s militiamen engage in regular daylight-street shootouts with gunmen, while cartel drug cooks (in an anecdote that suggests a real-life Breaking Bad) confess they learned their trade from a father-son duo who’d been brought in from America by their bosses. Eschewing narration and on-screen text in favor of interviews that serve to keep the story propelled ever-forward—and often taking up residence right beside, or over the shoulder of, its Autodefensas subjects—Cartel Land is the rare non-fiction work that routinely keeps one’s nerves on edge.
A tall, lanky man with a graying mustache and a humor that coexists well with his staunch, ruthless conviction, Mireles acts as a compelling center for the film’s attention. At once a noble believer in the rights of all Mexicans to live life free of thug-ish intimidation and terror, he’s also compromised by his own self-interest. Cartel Land’s depiction of Mireles’s efforts to expand Autodefensas’s reach, and then to keep the organization together, soon transforms the film into something more than just a snapshot of a particular conflict. As Mireles loses control of his outfit to criminal membership elements and fellow leaders intent on embracing the government’s efforts to integrate the group into a state-sanctioned unit, what emerges is a case study in the various ways in which virtuous independent movements are corrupted from within and coopted from without.
Heineman navigates his Mexican milieu with aplomb as he details the welcoming receptions and, soon thereafter, the harsh recriminations that await Autodefensas as they arrive in each new town. He’s less successful, however, when turning his attention north to a small stretch of the Arizona-Mexico border policed by Tim “Nailer” Foley and his Arizona Border Recon group. Recounting his upbringing by an abusive father and his anger over losing construction job opportunities to illegal immigrants, Foley seems to have taken up arms less out of necessity (à la Autodefensas) than out of a frustration with both the American government’s lack of immigration control and with his own tough, on-the-margins life. While the director tags along with Foley and his compatriots on a few desert-mountain excursions, one of which results in a bland confrontation with border-smuggling mules, these sequences add little other-side-of-the-story context to Cartel Land, mainly because Foley comes across as little more than an anti-government extremist infatuated with fantasies of defending his beleaguered nation from invading hordes.
Nonetheless, if these American-set sequences are its weak link, they do little to undercut Cartel Land’s overarching urgency or outrage—which reaches a crescendo during climactic scenes of the new Autodefensas command revealing their true colors. Infuriating and alarming in equal measure, the film adeptly conveys the scope of the cartel crisis, as well as the terrible perils and costs associated with attempting to combat it, bringing together its many threads into a final image that’s as dismaying as it is, sadly, predictable.
Director: Matthew Heineman
Writer: Matthew Heineman
Release Date: July 3, 2015 (select cities)